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Exercise & Fitness
Americans lag on exercise
- By Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health
Don’t be part of the crowd. Identify and overcome your barriers to exercise.
The latest snapshot of Americans’ exercise habits is not a pretty picture. Only 18% of us meet the weekly recommendations for cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity. That means five of every six of us don’t measure up.
Current guidelines call for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity (like brisk walking or raking leaves) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like jogging or swimming) along with two weekly sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises.
Using data from the National Health Information Survey, a telephone survey of randomly selected American households, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 43% of adults met the recommendations for cardiovascular (heart-protecting) activities and 22% met recommendations for muscle-strengthening activities, but only 18% did both. Rates were influenced by age (younger people were more active than older people), education (college-educated folks were more active than those with less schooling), and race or ethnicity (whites reported more physical activity than blacks or Hispanics). The findings appeared in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Numbers from the American Time Use Survey tell a similar story. On any given day, only a small minority of American adults engage in vigorous activity. The most commonly performed activity—after eating and drinking—was watching television or movies, done by 80% of those surveyed. Preparing meals was the most common moderate-intensity activity (26%), followed by gardening or taking care of house plants (11%), neither of which really get your heart beating faster. Barely 5% of those interviewed said they engaged in vigorous activities like swimming, running, or strength training. These findings also appeared in the journal’s October issue.
The disconnect between the amount of physical activity we do and what we should do is unfortunate. Exercise is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet against heart disease and stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, some types of cancer, depression, and a host of other ailments.
There are many ways to add exercise to the week, from several long, sweaty stretches at the gym to 10-minute activity bits scattered across each day. But it’s one thing to say, “Just do it” and another to actually get moving. Cars, labor-saving devices, televisions, and other machines and gadgets—even the design and layout of our communities—subvert the need for muscle power and seduce us into sitting rather than moving. Personal barriers also limit activity. These range from lack of time for exercise to worries that exercise will cause a heart attack or injury and limited access to safe and pleasant places to exercise.
If you want to exercise but have trouble getting started or sticking with it, try taking the Barriers to Being Active quiz from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. It can help you identify some of the things standing in your way.
You don’t have to leap all the barriers standing between you and a more active life. Instead, try putting one foot in front of the other and walking around them.
For more information on exercise and physical activity, take a look at suggestions from Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the CDC’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, or Exercise: A Program You Can Live With, a special health report from Harvard Health Publishing.
About the Author
Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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